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Exile In Guyville – Album of the Nineties?

When I first discussed a list of top nineties albums with a small group of music lovers, I began by listing my top 25 – in reverse order, as requested.  Immediately, three issues arose.

Firstly, that you need to be specific in what you mean by ‘best of the decade’.  Most influential?  Most popular?  Best by consensus, or by individual dictum?  Are you obliged to name-check all the genres, even if you feel some of them are outdated or irrelevant?   That’s a consideration that bears upon any list you’ll ever write, and you need to at least address it.

Secondly, that I appeared to have a bias against hard rock and metal.  That was a fair call, and one that I was willing to take on board.  The ‘glaring omissions’, as one contributor put it, were all touchstone hard rock albums.

Lastly, there was a shocked silence after I announced “Exile in Guyville” at number 1.  Nobody agreed with it, and it was eventually put down to the album affecting me personally, and thus rendering the whole exercise a skewed one.  My feeling now is that this is the reaction it’s going to get almost universally, so I going to do my best to pre-empt that by being as thorough as I can in explaining the choice.  To do that, I’m going to have to do a bit of background work on the decade as a whole.

One thing you’ll notice about the evolution of hard rock and metal in the nineties is that it’s more a devolution.  It started the decade relatively healthy, but by the end it was relegated to irrelevance, where it hadn’t been reduced to parody.  There’s no doubt the heyday of the genre was the early to mid-seventies, when bands like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Rush and the like were riding high.  Heavy Metal had a major influence on music that resonated for a long time – you only have to look at the number of bands who have ripped off Black Sabbath riffs to realise that.  From that point there were important bands – Iron Maiden, Motorhead and Van Halen spring to mind immediately.  But already we’re talking about less influential artists.  High quality of course, but no longer setting the agenda.

That’s no surprise.  It’s the way of most genres.  But there came a point in the eighties where metal needed to go somewhere.  One branch pointed straight to cock rock posturing and emphasis on image – Warrant, Motley Crue, Poison, that type of band.  Another thread led down the road to the likes of Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Ministry, Metallica and Tool.  That second thread was by a fair margin the more vital one.

But here’s the odd thing.  By the early nineties, they’d mostly spent themselves.  The only one of them to make an artistic statement beyond 1994 was Tool with “Aenima”.  And there was very little going on to take their place.  That’s not to say they didn’t survive.  But they no longer had a place at the forefront of what was happening in music.

So what happened?  Well, the answer isn’t all that straightforward, because other genres such as Urban/Rap music leaped cultural boundaries to cater to the hard-arse male to an extent.  But at least within white alternative rock, what mostly happened was Grunge.

Grunge started with a howl of existential angst – there’s really no other way to characterise what Nirvana brought to the world – but it quickly evolved into humanistic, sensitive, self-pitying rock.  Pearl Jam perhaps best typifies where it headed, and in the longer run, more bands took that direction than the one Nirvana offered.  Grunge provided a crucial bridge between what rock was and what it was to become.

The question remains – what was the catalyst for this softening?  It takes a gentle widening of perspective to understand that the catalyst didn’t come from within but from the outside.  The purpose of music, or at least music as written and performed by men, is exactly the same as that of poetry – to woo women.  If it stops doing its job, then it needs to change until it can.  And the fact of the matter is that the role of women in rock was changing significantly.  Whereas women participated in popular music all along, it was rare to find a significant and sustained foray by women into the hallowed world of rock.

But as we entered the nineties, the voice of women had altered from articulating concerns as defined by men to that of putting forward its own agenda.  Patti Smith way back in the seventies was a pioneer here.  But she was a lone voice, with few followers of any note.  As of the early nineties, we were starting to see an influx of women challenging male rock on its own turf.  P J Harvey, L7, Tori Amos (in subject matter at least), Bikini Kill, many others – but ahead of them all, and right at the front in the war, was Liz Phair.

You simply can’t underestimate the audacity of what she did.  Appropriating a touchstone rock album in “Exile on Main Street” was one thing, but confidently announcing she was taking on the whole ‘Guyville’ culture was quite another.  Her songs deliberately and quite consciously attacked male thinking and male assumptions.  She starts by measuring up to and ripping into the Mick Jagger of ‘Rocks Off’ for being a preening dick.  She stalks Steve Albini in ‘Glory’.  She is by turns a victim, a captive, a predator, a slut, a dominatrix.  But she never lets you forget how she got there, and where the blame lies.  And she rises out of the whole emotional mess gloriously intact and defiant.  The range of characters she presents is exhaustive.

In “Exile in Guyville”, Phair neatly encapsulated the exact female archetype the independent music world was going to have to deal with from now on.  The only way she could have had greater impact would have been to have lived in Seattle.  And the only way men were going to be able to deal with it was to change as well.  As women in rock became more strident, demanding and assertive, the smart males retreated to become more wheedling, confused and accommodating.  They suddenly started paying attention to women’s emotions in song, and presented as being willing to negotiate emotionally.  That may have been a stance, but it represented a clear change in direction from the sexual confidence of a few years earlier.

The impact of this album has been airbrushed a bit over the years.  Grunge and all the post-Grunge please-love-me-I’m-just-a-man attitude has been made to seem like a natural progression.  But the leap from Grunge as confusion and musical staking-out to deliberate male sexual positing may never have happened if it hadn’t been for “Exile in Guyville”.  That sounds like a big claim, but I’ll stand by it.

*    *    *    *    *

And that’s all well and good, but is the album that good?  Catalyst, sure.  Women in rock, maybe.  But best album of the nineties – long bow to draw, isn’t it?

I’ll confess straight away that I bought the album on a whim.  Spin Magazine had given it best album of 1993, it sounded intriguing, so I bought it.  When I first heard it, I thought I’d wasted my money.  It sounded thin, the guitar seemed indifferently tuned, the voice was offhand and a touch spiteful; in fact, to me it sounded as if the whole thing was slapped together in a couple of hours in someone’s basement.  The second time I played it, it didn’t sound any better, and I was half-decided to get rid of it.

Luckily for me, I was in the middle of a Dylan phase.  After abandoning myself completely to his mid-sixties albums to the point of driving my housemates insane, I went straight to his early work.  His debut album was cheap, so I grabbed it.  And it did nothing for me on first listen either.  Neither did his second album.  But I persisted with both of them – it’s Dylan, right?  The reviews are good, and he couldn’t let me down – and eventually I learnt that you have to listen to the song, not the production.  If a song is strong enough, it doesn’t need the bells and whistles to sell it.  But you need to be aware of that when you’re listening. Call me slow on the uptake, but that was a big step for me.

Armed with that understanding, I went back to “Exile in Guyville”.  I wasn’t confident – half the time an album sounds wanting because that’s exactly what it is.  But now and then you can be pleasantly surprised, and I didn’t trust my critical acumen over that of a respected magazine – not inasmuch as discarding something they thought was the best album of that year.  If I was right, I wanted it confirmed.  I played it again.

Incidentally, I’ve found something out about me and albums since then.  About ten percent of ‘recommended’ albums I’m never going to like.  Then there’s about a third I pick up on straight away.  The rest take at least five listens for me to understand.  Some of them require much more than that.  “Endtroducing” was one of those, as was the Chemical Brothers’ “Dig Your Own Hole”.  I have to figure out where they’re coming from first, what the overall feel is supposed to be.  Then I can start to determine how they’re travelling within that field.  But it’s often those albums that are the most rewarding for me.

So, “Guyville”.  Third listen – the songs started to differentiate into discrete units.  Fourth listen – I kind of got what she was getting at.  Fifth listen – it started.  What is that warped noise on the guitar track, like the guitar itself is bending?  That line about “And the license said you had to stick around until I was dead; But if you’re tired of looking at my face I guess I already am” – that’s good, and it even has a boom-boom noise at the end, undercutting the seriousness of the sentiment with a deadpan jokeyness.

I was as surprised as anyone.  She started sounding tough, and knowing, and sick of putting up with men’s bullshit.  And I wondered how I’d missed that.  Then  “Fuck and Run” kicked in – a song that pulls no punches about either men or women, that doesn’t blame someone else for the mess she’s in.  “Canary” crystallised before me into an aching, poignant depiction of domestic claustrophobia.  And “Gunshy” pointed the way out.  The longer tracks assumed form.  Before I knew it, I was hooked.

Pet Benatar released “Love is a Battlefield” in the early eighties.  That was a sentiment, a simplistic slogan.  “Exile in Guyville” is a despatch from the front line, where all the skirmishes are happening and the war is being lost or won.  And make no mistake, Phair on that album intends to fight that war with every weapon at her disposal, and she’s after a claim on some male turf.  Though she’s not overly confident of ultimate victory, she won’t die wondering.

It’s not a manifesto.  It’s not a diatribe against men.  It’s not nihilistic.  And it doesn’t seek to sentimentalise man-woman relations.  It’s just honest, determined, generous and not above self-examination.  Once you’ve got a handle on it, you will not hear another album like it.

So it’s got cultural significance, it has a unique style and sound, you can immerse yourself in it, and it’s innovative and accessible.  It’s certainly got a claim on “OK Computer” and “Nevermind”.  And for mine, it nudges past both of them.  Along with “Slanted and Enchanted”, it’s a surprise packet with a lot of kick.

I don’t expect everyone to be completely swayed by my argument.  And it won’t change anyone’s opinion about what the touchstone albums of the era are either.  If it convinces a few people to go and give it another chance, I’ll be happy.  My intention with the list is to open up dialogue and broaden thinking.  I’m no guru, and I don’t expect my choices are any more definitive than anyone else’s.  But you have to start somewhere, and you have to at least have the courage of your convictions.

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